Searches and seizures of property are protected by our Fourth Amendment due process rights. Courts often have to wrestle with real-world situations to see if officers have respected defendants' constitutional rights when contraband is taken during the course of an arrest. A recent case provides more powers for officers to seize property that is in open view to them.
Drug Seizure in Entryway
The case involves a detective in plain clothes who received a report of possible drug activity. The officer went to the scene, and from far away with binoculars observed the suspect go back and forth from his home, handing objects to people in exchange for cash. Based on this, the officer surmised that there was drug dealing taking place.
When the suspect was approach by officers outside his residence, he stomped on some objects, but could not destroy a vial of cocaine. The officers proceeded to the house, where only an unlocked glass storm door was closed. Looking inside the entryway behind the storm door, but in front of the closed main front door, the officer saw more drugs. They entered through the unlocked glass door and seized the drugs.
At trial for drug possession and distribution charges, the state tried to bring forth numerous incidences of prior drug offenses for which the defendant had been convicted. The defendant moved to suppress that evidence. The motion was denied, and the defendant was subsequently convicted.
Appeal Raises Fourth Amendment Issues
The defendant appealed, claiming that the evidence of prior convictions should not have been admitted, but also claiming that the entire initial search and seizure of his property was illegal because the officer opened the storm door with no warrant and no emergency situation existing to get them.
The appellate court clarified that when an officer is lawfully inside property, he may seize items that are in plain view. But if an officer is not lawfully inside property, and sees contraband inside, the court agreed that an officer does not have the right to walk into the private property and seize the items. The officer must usually get a warrant.
However, there is an exception to the need for a warrant where "exigent circumstances" exist, which may include the risk that evidence will be lost or destroyed.
The court upheld the officer's right to simply look through the storm door, calling it a valid visual observation that would have provided probable cause for a warrant had one been sought. First, the court felt the officer was lawfully on the property, having entered an unlocked and see-through storm door. The court also believed that had the officer gone back for a warrant, the illegal drugs would likely have been moved or disposed of, and thus, the officer had the exigent circumstances necessary to enter the area. In fact, the defendant had already destroyed some evidence when he stomped on items in front of the officers.
Prior Conviction Evidence
The court also found no error in allowing the prior convictions as evidence. To admit prior drug convictions, the court must consider:
1. the value of the prior crime evidence to the state;
2. how old the prior convictions are;
3. how similar the prior convictions are to the current one; and
4. whether the defendant's credibility is an issue in the case.
In this case, the prior convictions were for dealing narcotics, making them sufficiently similar. Because the defendant's testimony at trial contradicted that of the state, his credibility was at issue, which made credibility impeachment evidence important enough to be used by the state.
The appellate court therefore upheld the conviction entered by the jury at the trial.
If you are arrested, there may be complex constitutional issues that your attorney should understand to give you the best defense possible. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience protecting the rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.